OKLAHOMA CITY — Woody Guthrie's writings, recordings and artwork will land in his native state after an Oklahoma foundation bought the collection, with plans for a display that concentrates on his artistry rather than the populist politics that divided local opinion over the years.
Guthrie, known for the anthem, "This Land is Your Land" and his songs about the poor and downtrodden, is remembered mostly as a musician, composer and singer, but was also a literary figure and an artist, said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
"Woody Guthrie was a crossroads of creativity," Blackburn said. "Woody Guthrie reveals so much about our history."
The George Kaiser Family Foundation, a charitable organization based in Tulsa, announced Wednesday that it purchased the archives and plans to open the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa by the end of 2012 to mark the centennial of the singer's birth.
The foundation did not disclose how much it paid for the collection, which includes the original handwritten copy of "This Land is Your Land." Also included are original musical recordings, handwritten songbooks and almost 3,000 song lyrics, rare books by and about Guthrie, more than 700 pieces of artwork, letters and postcards, more than 500 photographs, Guthrie's annotated record collection and personal papers detailing family matters, his World War II military service and musical career.
The archive had been housed in the Mount Kisco, N.Y., home of Nora Guthrie, the songwriter's daughter. Woody Guthrie, a native of Okemah, died of Huntington's disease, a hereditary neurodegenerative condition, in 1967 at the age of 55.
While Guthrie's social activism rubbed some conservative Oklahomans the wrong way, Blackburn said his songs reflect the down-to-earth sentiment of the state where he was born.
"Woody Guthrie never changed his opinion," Blackburn said. "Woody Guthrie was a populist who was fearful of big business, fearful of big government. That populist message came out of Oklahoma's red soil."
Oklahoma musician and music historian Steve Ripley, who has performed with Bob Dylan and also worked with Oklahoma native Leon Russell, said Guthrie's work influenced them and other musicians including Bruce Springsteen.
"Most people recognize him as America's songwriter," Ripley said. "He's so important in his own right. He's writing about everything, and that was his genius."
Guthrie did not have much of an audience for his music early in his career, Blackburn said, but his popularity soared during the economic and cultural tumult caused by the Great Depression.
"Only then did he really find an audience," Blackburn said. "As the country's attitude started changing, it came in line with Woody's populist origins."
Guthrie's popularity in his home state suffered as it became more politically conservative, and he was even portrayed as anti-American.
Ripley noted that during World War II, Guthrie penned songs that railed against fascism, including "All You Fascists Bound To Lose," and sang for troops to buoy their spirits while serving with the Army and U.S. Merchant Marine.
"He wrote so many great songs that are pointedly pro-American," Ripley said. "They weren't running around knocking America. That stuff was not let's tear down America. It was let's build up America."
Attitudes about Guthrie have shifted over the past decade as Oklahomans renewed their interest in his life and music, Blackburn said. Today, a portrait of Guthrie hangs in the rotunda of the Oklahoma State Capitol and the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival is held annually in Okemah to coincide with his birthday on July 12.
The new four-building arts hub in Tulsa will feature public displays from the Guthrie archives and research space for scholars and artists "so the story of this extraordinary Oklahoman can be told for generations to come," the George Kaiser Family Foundation's executive director Ken Levit said in a statement.
Blackburn said the archive will ensure that Guthrie's art remains timeless like that of another Oklahoma native, Will Rogers.
It "will be more than a collection of one man's art," he said. "It will be a tool for education, inspiration for artists and a window through which every man and woman anywhere in the world can search for a better understanding of the human experience."
Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com